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Warning: Gamelan May Change Your Life

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Western Michigan University alumna Kitsie Emerson was pursuing an advanced degree in piano at Queens College, and she was becoming miserable. In a city crowded with hungry pianists, she had been confined to her tiny apartment for months, practicing. So, for a change of pace (and to satisfy a degree requirement), she signed up for lessons on a few non-western instruments. One was the gamelan.

Gamelan is a Javanese/Indonesian word for ensemble. As the Yale University Gamelan website explains:

 "The word 'gamel' means to hammer something. A Central Javanese gamelan consists primarily of bronze instruments - horizontal and vertical gongs and metallophones - but also includes several stringed instruments, flutes, drums, and voices in performance."

The sound of all these instruments combined in ancient yet fluid patterns made Emerson re-evaluate her direction. Within months, she was in Indonesia. Thirty years later, she still lives there, and her life revolves around gamelan music.

Kitsie Emerson has performed with the Chicago-based Friends of the Gamelan, which will appear at the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music on Saturday at 2 pm, in the Kalamazoo Public Library. In a conversation with Cara Lieurance, Emerson talks about the cultural and spiritual significance of gamelan music, how it has qualities of classical but also folk music, and how she is still learning its intricacies after decades of study.

Cara Lieurance covers local music with live morning interviews, and produces WMUK's Let's Hear It weekday mornings at 10 am Mon-Fri, showcasing local interviews and performances. She also produces The Pure Drop, an hour of Celtic music, with musician Dave Marlatt.
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